Prodigal Dogs

Have gray wolves found a home in Colorado?

  • The sun sets over a duck pond on the High Lonesome Ranch near the Roan Plateau in Western Colorado. The ranch is being managed for wildlife ... maybe even wolves.

    JT Thomas
  • Wolf.

    Don Hammond/Design Pics/Corbis
  • Paul and Lissa Vahldiek, owners of the High Lonesome Ranch.

    JT Thomas
  • Montana wolf biologist Cristina Eisenberg, with High Lonesome hunting guide Todd Weiszbrod, has seen signs of wolves on the ranch.

    JT Thomas
  • Conservation biologist Michael Soule of the Wildlands Project looks at tracks in Kimball Creek on the ranch.

    JT Thomas
  • Scat believed to be from a wolf, photographed on the High Lonesome Ranch last spring by then ranch manager Doug Dean

    Courtesy Cristina Eisenberg
 

Last April, in a narrow mountain valley in northwestern Colorado, Cristina Eisenberg was searching for scat. The diminutive, dark-haired biologist and two members of her field crew had set up a kilometer-long transect through elk habitat, and the trio was walking slowly along the line. It was a raw day, cold and windy with spells of freezing rain, and the biologists had been moving through meadows for hours, looking for elk poop, deer poop, coyote poop, mountain lion poop. This was old-fashioned wildlife biology -- hardly glamorous work -- but in it lay the story of the landscape, of the pursuers and the pursued, and Eisenberg was absorbed in the tale.

Then, on the edge of an aspen grove, one of the biologists saw something unusual: a scat roughly as long and wide as a banana, tapered at the ends, perhaps two months old. When Eisenberg examined it, she saw that it contained hair from deer or elk and shards of bone, some almost as long as a fingernail. It smelled distinctively earthy, like a shady forest floor.

In the course of her research, Eisenberg had seen and handled thousands of scats just like this one, but not here, not in Colorado. Everything about it -- the size, the shape, the smell, the contents -- indicated a creature that had been extirpated from the state more than 70 years ago. Everything about it said wolf.

Within an hour and a half, the crew found a similar scat, some 500 yards away. Later that day, in another aspen grove about five miles away, they found two more. Less than a week later, Eisenberg's lead tracker, Dan Hansche, found a wolf-like scat with a similar, smaller scat laid on top -- suggesting, Eisenberg says, that an adult wolf had been teaching its pup to mark territory.

As the weather warmed last summer, the field crew found 11 more wolf-like scats, and Hansche documented a set of tracks with wolf characteristics. Then, at dawn on July 27, Eisenberg and another biologist were driving down a winding valley road, deep in a discussion about statistics, when Eisenberg spotted a black shape running across a bright green alfalfa field, perhaps 100 yards away. The stance, the gait and the set of the ears all suggested the wolves Eisenberg had spent so much time observing near her home in northwestern Montana.

This past November, during another trip to her Colorado study area, she found another set of wolf-like tracks, fresh prints that extended at least a quarter-mile up a snowy ranch road. All in all, Eisenberg and her crew found some 18 separate signs of wolf activity during visits over a seven-month period. This animal -- or animals -- was no mere passerby.

Officially, wild wolves do not live in Colorado. The nearest established population is in Wyoming, where gray wolves were introduced to Yellowstone National Park in 1995. But rumors of wolf sightings abound in Colorado, and in recent years, at least two wolves have died in the state. In 2004, a young radio-collared female wolf from Yellowstone was killed on Interstate 70 near Idaho Springs, about 30 miles west of Denver. In the winter of 2009, another young female collared wolf traveled a 1,000-mile-long route from the Yellowstone region to the Meeker, Colo., area, roughly 20 miles from where Eisenberg and her crew work. That wolf's death, in April, is still under investigation by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and neither state nor federal officials will comment on the matter.

Like most scientists, Eisenberg and her colleagues are cautious. For months, even among themselves, they half-jokingly spoke of "visitors from the North," reluctant to name a species as controversial as the gray wolf. They emphasize that DNA testing, now under way at a lab at the University of California, Los Angeles, is needed to back up their identification of the animal or animals that produced the scat and tracks. But whatever the animal is, it appears to be eating what wild wolves eat, and traveling over the landscape the way wild wolves do.

When wolves arrive in an ecosystem, everything changes: the ecology, the politics, relationships both animal and human. "We know more about wolves, and the management of wolves, than we do about many other forms of wildlife," says Douglas Smith, leader of the Yellowstone wolf project. "But we rarely get to put it into practice, because people freak out, flat-out freak out, when a wolf shows up."

Wolves herald a grand experiment -- and in Colorado, that experiment may already be under way.

High Country News Classifieds
  • LAND AND WATER CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    The Land and Water Conservation Director is a full-time salaried position with the Mountain Area Land Trust in Evergreen, CO. The successful candidate will have...
  • ARIZONA PROGRAM MANAGER
    National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), the nation's oldest and largest national parks nonprofit advocacy organization seeks an Arizona Program Manager. The Arizona Program Manager works...
  • CROWN OF THE CONTINENT COMMUNITY CONSERVATION SPECIALIST
    THE WILDERNESS SOCIETY is seeking a Community Conservation Specialist, for the Crown of the Continent DEPARTMENT: Conservation CLASSIFICATION: Grade 6 Specialist/Representative (Low of $54K) REPORTS...
  • ASSISTANT FARM DIRECTOR
    About The Organization Building community through fresh vegetables is at the heart of the Sisters-based non-profit, Seed to Table Oregon. Based on a four-acre diversified...
  • CARPENTER WANTED
    CARPENTER WANTED. Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rainforest on the coast, Hike the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg...
  • DYNAMIC EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    VARD is seeking an Executive Director to lead a small legal & planning staff dedicated to the health and sustainability of Teton Valley Idaho and...
  • WATER PROJECT MANAGER, UPPER SAN PEDRO (ARIZONA)
    Based in Tucson or Sierra Vista, AZ., the Upper San Pedro Project Manager develops, manages, and advances freshwater conservation programs, plans, and methods focusing on...
  • CAMPAIGNS DIRECTOR
    Southeast Alaska Conservation is hiring. Visit https://www.seacc.org/about/hiring for info. 907-586-6942 [email protected]
  • FINANCE & GRANTS MANAGER
    The Blackfoot Challenge, located in Ovando, MT, seeks a self-motivated, detail-oriented individual to conduct bookkeeping, financial analysis and reporting, and grant oversight and management. Competitive...
  • WADE LAKE CABINS, CAMERON MT
    A once in a lifetime opportunity to live and run a business on the shore of one of the most beautiful lakes in SW Montana....
  • CONTRIBUTING EDITOR, BOOKS, CULTURE AND COMMENTARY (PART-TIME, CONTRACT)
    High Country News is seeking a Contributing Editor for Books, Culture and Commentary to assign and edit inquisitive, inspiring, and thought-provoking content for HCN in...
  • STATEWIDE COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    ABOUT US Better Wyoming is a nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy organization that educates, organizes, and mobilizes Wyoming residents on behalf of statewide change. Learn more at...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    TwispWorks is a 501(c)3 that promotes economic and cultural vitality in the mountainous Methow Valley, the eastern gateway to North Cascades National Park in Washington...
  • CLEAN ENERGY ADVOCATE OR DIRECTOR
    Location: Helena, Montana Type: Permanent, full time after 1-year probationary period. Reports to: Director of Policy and Legislative Affairs. Travel: Some overnight travel, both in-state...
  • PROFESSIONAL GIS SERVICES
    Custom Geospatial Solutions is available for all of your GIS needs. Affordable, flexible and accurate data visualization and analysis for any sized project.
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Restore Hetch Hetchy, a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit organization, seeks experienced development professional to identify and engage individuals and institutions who are inspired to help underwrite...
  • PUBLIC LANDS COUNSEL
    The successful candidate will be the organization's lead counsel on public lands issues, including reviewing federal administrative actions and proposed policy and helping to shape...
  • GUIDE TO WESTERN NATIONAL MONUMENTS
    NEW BOOK showcases 70 national monuments across the western United States. Use "Guide10" for 10% off at cmcpress.org
  • RARE CHIRICAHUA RIPARIAN LAND FOR SALE
    40 acres: 110 miles from Tucson: native trees, grasses: birder's heaven::dark sky/ borders state lease & National forest/5100 ft/13-16 per annum rain
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!